Growing up in the Washington suburbs, Kevin Abell gave no thought to his family name or its prominent place in the world of Baltimore newspapers.
"I grew up with The Washington Post," said Abell, whose great-great grandfather Arunah Shepherdson Abell, an itinerant printer, launched the Baltimore Sun with two absentee partners in 1837. "My father used to get this paper from Baltimore delivered every day to our house, and that was it."
In fact, the "Abells of Baltimore," as one family member calls the clan so closely identified with the Sunpapers, have largely been the Abells of Washington for most of this century.
The May 28 sale of the A. S. Abell Co. to the Times Mirror Co. for $600 million was ratified by the shareholders last week. At that time, the only descendant of Arunah Abell on the board of directors was Kevin Abell's older brother, William Shepherdson (Shep) Abell Jr., a Montgomery County lawyer.
Kevin and Shep Abell, three other brothers and two sisters grew up in Chevy Chase, and all but one of the seven live in the Washington area. The boys, like their father, graduated from Georgetown Prep in Bethesda.
Their father also is a Montgomery County lawyer, now largely retired. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School.
The public perception of the Sunpapers as being owned almost exclusively by a Baltimore family, from which the company took its name, had not been accurate for decades.
Abell ownership of the Baltimore Sun newspapers began to erode in 1909, partly as the result of a rift between two of Arunah's grandsons, Walter W. and Charles S. Abell. While Walter W. Abell was vacationing in Egypt, Charles S. Abell sold a majority share of the company to outside investors. Prominent among those investors were coal magnate H. Crawford Black, merchant banker Robert Garrett and John Campbell White, later a career diplomat.
Charles S. Abell went on to buy a Norfolk newspaper, became business manager of The Washington Post in the 1920s, and lived in Chevy Chase.
Van-Lear Black, son of H. Crawford Black, took over operation of the company in 1914, and he and his descendants held the board chairmanship until Dec. 1, 1984. Gary Black Jr., Van-Lear Black's grandson, is now a member of the Abell board. Robert Garrett, a merchant banker like his 19th-century ancestor, lives in New York and is a board member.
Thus, over the years, the Sunpapers' roots have spread well beyond Baltimore and the immediate Abell family to many distant heirs and unrelated persons. Even the Abell Foundation, the largest single shareholder among 135 in the corporation, was set up in 1954 by then-board chairman Harry C. Black, Van-Lear's brother.
Of the four families owning stock, the Abells own less than the Blacks but slightly more than the Garretts and Whites, according to public records.
There are Abells still living in Baltimore -- even Arunah S. IV -- but most of the clan resides in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
"In terms of my grandfather's lineal descendants, we're all here," said Shep Abell, a mild-mannered and self-effacing man of 42 who lives in a large split-level home in Kensington. He has law offices on Connecticut Avenue in nearby Chevy Chase. "I've always lived here."
He spent one summer, in 1964, as a Sunpapers news intern covering police districts and writing obituaries. That was the extent of his newspaper career, except for an occasional guest columnist piece for the Washington Star.
"I like being a lawyer more," he said.
He joined the A. S. Abell Co. board in 1976, serving with his father until the latter's retirement three years ago.
In the wake of the sale, media observers speculated on the impact of chain ownership on a locally owned newspaper. The sale offer also triggered a lot of soul-searching by some family members and owners.
"When they first told me about it, I was absolutely shocked," said Gary Black Sr., 72, who served as chairman longer than anyone. "I didn't sleep, in fact. My stomach felt like somebody had their fist in it and was twisting it. For years, you wake up in the morning and there it was, the Sun. It was part of me."
Shep Abell said he agonized for about 36 hours and then decided the sale was the "absolutely right thing to do." Taking a longer view, he said he regards the hiring of Reg Murphy as publisher in 1981 as possibly of greater significance than selling the newspapers.
"He and board Chairman Bill McGuirk both made major contributions to getting the paper to the point where Times Mirror made this offer," he said.
The selection in 1984 of McGuirk, former chief executive officer of Mercantile Bank & Trust Co., also underscored a gradual shift in the papers' image as a family-run enterprise. As family heirs grew in number, Mercantile played an increasing role as trustee for their shares. Naturally and early on, this position evolved into a seat on the board.
Kevin Abell, alone among the descendants, almost made a career of the Sunpapers. After graduating from Loyola College in Baltimore, he worked as an Evening Sun reporter for seven years, including 18 months as a financial writer, and went on to become the suburban editor of the morning Sun.
"It wasn't until I went to Loyola that the impact of the Abell name on Baltimore hit me," he said. "Nobody else has lived here since 1910 or so, except for an old uncle who may have lived here sometime. . . .
"I'm sort of the prodigal son come home," he said. "I think my father was secretly proud I worked there." And, he said, he thought his fellow Sun employes liked the idea of an Abell working at the paper, "that there was a sense of family, that it was sort of a small, family run paper."
Then, four months ago, Kevin Abell, 33, switched careers. He went to work as a stockbroker with Alex. Brown & Sons and lives in Baltimore.
"It was a quality-of-life decision," he said, noting that the long hours required of an editor kept him from seeing his two young children.